IEA Alumni Spotlight – Valerie Ding

April 6, 2021

We’ve been fortunate to have so many accomplished and interesting people walk through our doors. Every month, IEA highlights one of our program alumni to let the community know what they’ve been up to. This month, we caught up with Valerie Ding.

What are some educational, personal and professional highlights and/or accomplishments of yours since graduating from high school?

Graduated from Stanford with my BS in Computer Science (started out very intent on the Engineering Physics major; in classic Stanford fashion, accidentally took a CS course, discovered I could not put the books down, ignored everything about “be different, be different, don’t become a CS major” and became a CS major).  Did a bunch of research like optical character recognition on historical law texts (my favorite library was the law library), gamified e-commerce, wrote my own programming language (on top of Python, silly me), etc. etc.  Did a bunch of internships, most memorably LinkedIn the summer they announced the Microsoft acquisition.  Started my MS in Computer Science also at Stanford but pulled a Larry & Sergey and took leave of absence because I could not wait to get my hands dirty in industry.

I wanted to go way out of my comfort zone so I did the hardest thing imaginable and joined Bridgewater (hedge fund) because I’d fallen in love with portfolio management algorithms.  I learned so much about how the world’s most intense systems (hundreds of billions of dollars) are engineered and optimized and re-engineered and re-optimized to the tiniest granularity possible.  But I could not ignore my growing hunger to keep learning and building things for people, for human lives, for my family & friends to enjoy, so last year I joined Alexa at Amazon where I am now a software engineer working on a team that is building smart shopping for grocery, physical stores, and all sorts of devices among other things, which has become exponentially more useful and relevant to the world in this past year.  Very excited to see what we can make for all of you.

What is a favorite IEA/CDB memory?

This is going to be a very predictable but I think important answer. Not even a few days into my first year of college, an IEA alumna reached out to a group of new college freshmen to invite us to brunch. We had met perhaps once in person before then, but we instantly bonded as a group over our mutual shared experiences, the Conferences and events, and appreciation for the IEA community and those that make it possible. (It’s a widely known secret – I’m now going to only partially spill the beans – that there is a group of us self branded as “Bonnie’s kids” or some similar lingo which changes over the years. I am not sure what the current lingo is, so I’m not spilling the full beans, but Bonnie’s kids meet up all over the world and it is delightful and hilarious and heartwarming to me every time.)

What words of wisdom would you pass on to current IEA students?

This question makes me laugh because I am absolutely not wise and do not feel qualified to write anything here.  Maybe I’ll be able to say more at an IEA event someday.  One thing I do want to say, though, is to take the advice of your mentors seriously and yet not be afraid to challenge them and do things differently when your gut is screaming at you to do otherwise.  Who knows if this is the “right” way to do things, but I have found I am happiest and most able to act on my instincts when I know it’s right for me and it’s not what people expect of me.  I think when that divergence happens, if (especially) it’s painful to reconcile, that’s a great sign that you’re following your internal compass and being true to yourself.

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